The Nines (2007)
Directed and written by John August
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, Melissa McCarthy, Elle Fanning and Dahlia Salem
Since the release of "Pulp Fiction" in 1994, over eleven million films have tried to capture its form and essence. Only two have succeeded: Go and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Go was the first produced screenplay of John August; an auspicious start, to say the least. Alas, he followed it up with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Corpse Bride, two Charlie’s Angels movies, and Big Fish. Nothing to be ashamed of, but nothing to write home about either. Was Go a fluke? Happily, no. August’s screenplay for "The Nines" is fun, confusing, provocative. And he directs it, his first gig, with creative flair. Far from perfect, it’s still a thoughtful pleasure.
If August’s poetic muse for Go was Quentin Tarantino, the inspiration for The Nines must be Rod Serling- creator and writer of The Twilight Zone TV series from 1959-64. Long before Star Trek, Serling used strange stories to explore complex philosophical problems. Not confined by the laws of time and space, his plots could become outrageously strange. But by the end, we learned the rules that governed each week’s Serling-Universe. And the pleasure lay in not only figuring out the rules of his puzzling worlds but also what sort of philosophical issue was being raised. August’s film has done the same thing. The three, thirty minute movies that constitute this film are each, in their own right, entertaining stories. But when we discover how the three stories are linked, the deeper philosophical questions behind them are revealed.
It would be unfair to the writer-director and your own enjoyment to recount the three narratives. Suffice it to say that all of them are interesting riffs on celebrity, reality TV, and the media in general. As for the deeper philosophical issue, apparently August not only channeled Rod Serling but also Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Why, you may ask, are the ideas of Germany’s greatest 17th century philosopher in a movie? Because August is interested in a problem that Leibniz claimed to have solved. As a good Christian, Leibniz had to confront why an all-powerful, loving, and moral God would create a world with so much evil. At the end of Liebinz’s tortuous logic, he concluded that this is the best of all the worlds that can exist. It may not be a "10," but if perfection is impossible, a "9" ain’t half bad. Now the idea that this is the most perfect world that can possibly exist may sound ludicrous- it certainly did to Voltaire, who famously ridiculed it in Candide. But August wants to chew on this question. What if this is the best of all possible worlds? What must God think of it? What should we?
As with Rod Serling, August isn’t about to let his deeper questions intrude on a good story. This plot-driven film engages us through likable characters, humor, and conventional, dramatic situations. But to make sense of it all, we are ultimately taken to the twilight zone. And to take us, August assembled a surprisingly good cast- surprising because two of the three actors have never shown the kind of acting chops on display here. Ryan Reynolds (Blade Trinity, Smokin’ Aces, Amityville Horror) reveals colors on his acting palette that we haven’t seen. The center of each of the stories, he becomes an engaging reference point for us. Hope Davis (American Splendor, Secret Lives of Dentists) gives yet another solid performance. Melissa McCarthy (Gilmore Girls) works equally well as smart-sassy and as poignant-affecting. Of course we notice her weight (she’s heavy), and leading ladies aren’t supposed to be heavy. And then we stop noticing it, because her performance and her well-drawn characters are about other things. The palpable chemistry between the three leads further draws us into this strange world.
Kudos notwithstanding, John August isn’t Charlie Kaufman (nor was Rod Serling). The strangeness of the story- along with the exotic philosophical ideas beneath it- never resonate like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman’s work, unlike August’s, eschews sentimentality and always chooses to have us shaking our heads rather than swallowing hard and fighting back tears. But then again, Go was more sentimental than Pulp Fiction. And August has his own distinct voice. And if he isn’t as edgy or daring as he might be, there’s much to be said for a film that’s as entertaining and thought-provoking as the best episodes of The Twilight Zone.